Darik Dillard said he should have made it.
Dillard needed a few measly inches to extend the second overtime and give Rice a chance to match North Texas’ touchdown.
But the Mean Green defense lived up to its name on the fourth and inches play by stuffing Dillard right after he received the ball. The two yard loss sealed a 42-35 overtime victory and set off a wild celebration among the North Texas fans in attendance Saturday at Rice Stadium.
“They obviously just pinched and took everything from us,” said Rice coach David Bailiff about the final play. “We’ve got to sustain blocks and get moving at the point of attack.”
Rice (0-4, 0-2) won the stat sheet, gaining more rushing and passing yards, finishing with nine more first downs and possessing the balls about 13 more minutes. Rice even converted nine third downs and was two of three on fourth down.
But the stat sheet didn’t show focus, and that was a killer Bailiff and Dillard said.
Rice built a 17-0 lead before watching UNT claw back into it using big plays and taking advantage of a plethora of Owl mistakes.
“It’s really tough when you race out to a 17-0 lead and then sit there and watch it slip away,” Bailiff said. “We had too many turnovers, penalties and gave up some big plays.”
North Texas had three scoring drives that took less than two minutes, including a one-play drive featuring Jeffrey Wilson going outside and out-running several Rice defenders. Wilson’s 75-yard touchdown run gave UNT a 21-20 lead midway through the third quarter. The junior had a game high 157 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
“He came out had a really good second half,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said about Wilson. “They were doing a lot of things up front, twisting and slanting on their fronts that kind of muddied up our inside zones, so we ended up hitting the perimeter more.”
After a lackluster start, UNT freshman quarterback Mason Fine looked both more comfortable and confident as the game wore on. He threw his first career touchdown pass, ran for a first down on a third-and-12 draw play and finished the night with a season best 224 passing yards. With the game on the line, he directed two overtime scoring drives.
His counterpart, Tyler Stehling, also had his moments. Down 28-20, Stehling took off for a 41-yard run down to the UNT 2.
“I had plenty of green grass ahead of me so I took it,” Stehling said.
Dillard finished the drive with a TD run to make it 28-26. Rice tied it on a two-point pass from Stehling to Robby Wells.
Rice took the overtime lead with Dillard’s 3-yard touchdown run, but UNT forced more bonus football when Wilson scored on a five-yard run.
The Mean Green looked like they would have to settle for a field goal on its next possession after Fine threw an incomplete third down pass. But Rice nose tackle Roe Wilkins was flagged for roughing the passer on the play. UNT took advantage when Willy Ivery scored from four yards out.
While UNT leaves Houston 2-2, the Owls are left wondering what will it take to get in the win column. A trip next week to Southern Mississippi may not help matters.
Still, Bailiff did not mention wholesale changes. Stehling will remain QB 1 with Nate German continuing to be the change-of-pace option quarterback.
“It’s not fun,” Bailiff said. “Even in my worst-case scenario, I never dreamed we’d be 0-4. Now we’ve got to pull ourselves out and the only way to do that is to keep these guys together.”